Preserving water quality in river catchments is fundamental for economic development, ecosystems functions, and human wellbeing. In particular, low water quality can negatively impact aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity, and ultimately their ability to provide ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005), and this contributes to the erosion of resilience and adaptive capacity in the associated social-ecological systems. However, managing environmental resources is complex (Game, et al., 2014). This is because water-related ecosystems, with humans as a component, are inherently complex, and managers are often unable to predict all the consequences of their interventions at different spatial, temporal and administrative scales (DeFries and Nagendra, 2017). This observation probably explains why water quality management remains a major concern in many watersheds around the world (UN-Water, 2016), despite efforts to implement modern water management paradigms including more stringent water laws, Integrated Water Resources Management, and Sustainable Sanitation and Water Management.
Water quality management has at least four of the ten characteristics of a “wicked problem” (Rittel and Webber, 1973, Head and Xiang, 2016). First, changes in water quality could potentially affect everyone in society with different degrees of severity, although individuals have different mitigation options. As a result, such problems involve a large set of stakeholders who have different interests in water-related ecosystems services, who often hold different views about the definition of the problems, and their potential solutions. Second, there exists a wide range of causes and effects of poor water quality, and a multitude of ways in which water-related ecosystem services may be affected. Due to the multiplicity of pollution sources and the long lag times in system responses, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to identify and attribute the causes of pollution to a particular type of stakeholder or activity. Besides, the same amount of pollutants released in different environments may have different final impacts. Third, there is often a separation in space and time between the creation and consequences of pollution. Hence, polluters often do not have to bear the consequences of their own pollution, which reduces the likelihood of self-regulating feedbacks that would force them to change their management practices in the event of negative impacts. Finally, although we can learn how to manage water pollution and its effects on ecosystems by trial and error, the consequences of each trial are not only very large given the number of persons affected, but they are also not immediate. This limits the opportunities to experiment with different governance options.
Given these characteristics, identifying suitable public policies or technological solutions capable of rapidly reducing pollution and restoring affected ecosystems is a huge challenge, although this does not mean that we can do nothing about wicked problems. A number of solutions have been suggested in the literature (Conklin, 2006, DeFries and Nagendra, 2017, Kumlien and Coughlan, 2018, Carter, 2019), and two of these seem particularly relevant to water pollution issues. First, stakeholder involvement is seen as critically important (Camillus, 2008). In particular, a better understanding of the diverse stakeholder perspectives on the problem contributes to reducing the wickedness of ecosystem management (Head, 2008, Rissman and Carpenter, 2015, Head and Xiang, 2016). As noted by Rissman and Carpenter (2015), “Ecosystem management decisions that may seem to be a simple matter of setting scientific limits on resource use frequently fail because of the political process of decision-making, differing values and norms, and power imbalances”. Camillus (2008) also suggested that “The aim should be to create a shared understanding of the problem and foster a joint commitment to possible ways of resolving it. Not everyone will agree on what the problem is, but stakeholders should be able to understand one another’s positions well enough to discuss different interpretations of the problem and work together to tackle it”. Second, the ecosystem services affected by pollution are often public and nonmarketed goods and changes in them are not factored into individual and governmental decisions. There is thus a need to make progress in the valuation of water-related ecosystem services, and a first step in that direction will be to identify which, among the different services provided by water ecosystems, are perceived as most important (Armatas, et al., 2014, Jensen, 2019).
Stakeholder perceptions about important water related ecosystem services are critical to improving water governance and quality, if they are to generate behavioral changes over the medium term (Game, et al., 2014, Carmenta, et al., 2017). Perceptions, which are composed of personal beliefs, perspectives, and meanings, are viewpoints about a particular topic of interest (Meissner et al., 2018). Yarar and Orth (2018) define perceptions as “lay theories” or the structured beliefs of laypeople to distinguish them from scientific theories, which are factual and based on scientific evidence. Lay theories are subjective, influenced by societal norms and individual experiences, and may even be ambiguous due to their subjective nature. Barry & Proops (1999) and Cross (2005) refer to perceptions as ‘worldviews’ or ‘discourses’ or ‘attitudes’. They are usually diverse and subjective in nature, since they are based on an individual’s personal, social, cultural and economic experiences (Pereira, Fairweather, Woodford, & Nuthall, 2016). From the standpoint of sustainable ecosystems management, points of stakeholder consensus and controversy across such diverse perceptions must be identified in order to help negotiate and address trade-offs among different ecosystem services.
This study investigates the management of water pollution and other water related ecosystem services in the South African section of the Olifants river catchment, one of the most important and most polluted in South Africa, with multiple stakeholders competing for its water resources. Despite South Africa having one of the most progressive legislations formulated to ensure sustainable water use, maintaining water quality in this catchment is proving to be a major policy challenge. Decreasing water quality is negatively impacting its ability to deliver water related ecosystem services. Given the diversity of stakeholders benefiting directly or indirectly from these ecosystem services, water pollution in this catchment has many of the characteristics of a wicked problem. The Government mainly coordinates water quantity and quality issues: national and provincial governments articulate laws and regulations to mitigate water pollution. While some hard data on water flows and water ecosystem services in the catchment exist (Nel and Driver, 2015, Hein, et al., 2020), there is a dearth of information about stakeholder perceptions. In particular, we could find no information about the ecosystem services that stakeholders find most important, their perceptions on the current state and levels of ecosystem services, and their perceptions on how the ecosystem service levels relate to water quality.
Inspired to remedy this gap, we developed an application of the Q methodology (subsequently referred to as Q) to identify and analyze diverse perspectives about water related ecosystem services in the Olifants catchment across six broad stakeholder groups (regulators, water users i.e. farmers and households, water suppliers, water boards, conservationists, and private sector). The Q is a semi-qualitative methodology used to systematically identify a detailed view of the subjective perceptions that a diverse group of people hold on a given topic (Watts and Stenner, 2012). It is a highly useful tool to analyze individually held perspectives within stakeholder groups (e.g., Cuppen, et al., 2010), and it has been used in a range of “wicked problems” applications associated with environmental issues (e.g., Curry, et al., 2013, Bredin, et al., 2015, Lehrer and Sneegas, 2018). For example, it has been used in health economics to elicit preferences and economic behavior (Baker et al., 2006), and more recently in environmental economics to rank ecosystem services (e.g., Armatas, et al., 2014, Jensen, 2019). It is based on individual interviews during which respondents are asked to sort a set of items, here the water related ecosystem services, into a predefined distribution. A by-person factor analysis is then used to identify groups of individuals sharing distinct latent factors (Webler, et al., 2009, Watts and Stenner, 2012). In this study, these factors correspond to ranking of water ecosystem services from an extensive pre-defined list. Stated otherwise, we elicited perceptions and identified groups of individuals sharing distinct perspectives about important ecosystem services provided by the Olifants river catchment.
The rest of the article is presented as follows. Section 2 discusses the water quality and water related ecosystem services provided by the Olifants catchment. Section 3 is on the methodology, wherein we present the study area, data collection, and data analysis. The results are presented in Section 4, and the conclusions and recommendations in Section 5.